It’s Not the Clothes That Maketh the Man, But the Society That Maketh the Meaning
The appearance of Harry Styles in a dress on the cover of this month’s Vogue has attracted the censure of conservative “thinkers”, bemoaning the death of masculinity. But, at the end of the day, a dress is nothing more than a piece of cloth upon which society has inscribed a meaning.
Whilst Google-searching recent headlines for another article I was researching*, I was bemused to read of the current furore du jour of the right-wing media, spurred by pop-star Harry Styles wearing a dress in the latest issue of Vogue. The star’s choice of attire has led conservative “thinkers” such as Candace Owens to lament not only the demise of “traditional masculinity” but, apparently, the destruction of society as a whole;
There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this. In the west, the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men. (Candace Owens, Twitter, 14/11/20)
Now, for starters, if you’re looking to the likes of Candace Owens for intelligent, logical, and reasoned sociological debate, quite frankly, you need your head read. This is the woman who calls the Black Lives Matter movement “a bunch of whiny toddlers, pretending to be oppressed for attention”, believes that “the entire premise of #metoo is that women are stupid, weak, & inconsequential”, and asserts that Democrats rigged the 2020 US Election.
And yet, just like Donald Trump, Owens’ every ridiculous, bigot-baiting, hate-filled diatribe is like a dog-whistle to the right-wing. They wait, caps-lock poised at the ready, just to hear what she hath dictated to be the leftie-libtard conspiracy of the day, and immediately the pile on begins. In response to Owens’ tweet, Ben Shapiro (another conservative hysteric) declared “anyone who pretends that it is not a referendum on masculinity for men to don floofy dresses is treating you [Owens] as a full-on idiot”, and NRA spokesperson and Breitbart “journalist”, Dana Loesch, asserted that “there is a war on men and masculinity”.
Why all the furore, FFS? At the end of the day, the thing we’ve all agreed to label “ a dress” is simply a piece of fabric arranged in such a way as to form a one-piece garment, with a “skirt” of material that falls over the wearer’s legs rather than enclosing the legs, crotch and buttocks as in the arrangement of material we call “a pair of trousers/pants”. Whatever meaning society has inscribed upon this conglomeration of cotton/linen/wool/silk threads is entirely arbitrary, and is maintained via a collective agreement.
In the Middle Ages, both women and men wore full or knee-length garments, or gowns (from the Saxon word gunna). When, in the mid 17th century, the gown fell out of favour as male attire, a man’s virility and sexual attractiveness was measured by the shapeliness of his calves, accentuated through the wearing of thigh- or knee-length breeches and hose (stockings). Up until as recently as the early 20th century, male children wore dresses until they were anywhere from 2 and 8 years old and, indeed, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wore a dress up until the age of 5.
Throughout history, the gendering of clothing (as with anything else) has been a matter of semiotics. Through a cultural consensus, a society inscribes a coded meaning into an object, in this case a one-piece, skirted garment called “a dress” and, nowadays at least, calls it “feminine”. With this coding thus inscribed, we see someone wearing a “dress” and interpret them as female, girl, woman etc. But we don’t have to go too far back in history to locate semiotic coding that identified “dress” or “gown” as a multi-sex garment. Ostensibly, the garment itself hasn’t changed; it is simply the meaning that the society ascribed to it at that time that was different.
Moreover, there are plenty of modern societies and cultures in which men wear clothing that more closely resembles a “dress” or “gown” than “traditional male” attire in the West. In the Arabic Peninsula, many men wear an ankle length tunic called a thawb, and the unisex djellaba worn in Morocco and other Northern African Maghreb regions is likewise a long, flowing garment. Does the wearing of these traditional fashions somehow obliterate the wearer’s masculinity? Are they somehow magically “feminized” every time they don their clothes? The answer is, of course not! It’s a piece of material. It contains no inherent “femaleness” or “maleness” (whatever those terms actually mean, anyway) other than what people choose to ascribe to it.
And, quite honestly, if your notion of “traditional masculinity” is defined by something as trivial and unimportant the piece of material that’s covering a man’s body on any given day, then it was probably a pretty flimsy construct to begin with anyway.
*I don’t just write articles about Harry Styles, by the way, though you might be forgiven for thinking on a day when two Styles-inspired pieces have been published in a row. It’s just that he’s been in the news a lot lately, and I do love me some pop-culture commentary. I promise I do write about other stuff, too, like:
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